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It’s not a selfie. It’s art! (You have a lot in common with Van Gogh)

Pouting narcissistically into your phone? You have more in common with Rembrandt and Van Gogh than you can imagine.

brunch Updated: Jan 23, 2015 20:33 IST
Amisha Chowbey
Amisha Chowbey
Hindustan Times
Kim Kardashian,Barack Obama,Narendra Modi

You know narcissism has reached new heights when Kim Kardashian clicks approximately 1,200 selfies a week for a coffee table book titled Selfish. But you can’t blame her.

On social media, in 2013, the word ‘selfie’ was used 17,000 per cent more often than in previous years, with celebrities and even politicians like Barack Obama and Narendra Modi showing off duck-faces and fish-eyed views of quantities of teeth.

But if you think that by raising your phone to your face you’re a card-carrying global citizen of the new millennium, you are so wrong. You are just the latest in a long line of self-obsessed human beings who have used the cutting edge technology of their times to show many faces of themselves to the world.

Blasts from the past

The year was 1839. Robert Cornelius, a pioneer in American photography, posed for what is believed to be the first ever selfie. It required dedication: he had to open the lens, run into the frame, stand absolutely still for over one minute and run back to shut the lens and then process the picture. That did not deter him.

But even Cornelius was the most recent in an artistic history of self-recording that existed much before the camera was invented. Self-portraits can’t possibly be confused with easily discarded selfies, but they can be seen as the origins of representations of the self.

"Selfies are purely for the purpose of fun," says photographer Raghu Rai. "They begin with distortion since the camera is held so close to the face, leaving them without an artistic point of view, something that exists in self-portraits. Only the point where the distortion stops can be considered as a creative attempt and expression of individuality."

One of the first painted selfies dates to 1524. A gift to Pope Clement VII, it was created by the young artist Parmigianino who peered into a convex barber’s mirror and painted a faultless disproportionate face strikingly similar to the distorted selfies we have perfected in the 21st century – the ones at an angle, shot with an arm outstretched.

First man: Robert Cornelius, a pioneer in American photography, took the first ever selfie (left)

First duck: This Rembrandt sketch from 1630 is the first recorded duck-face (right)

Throughout the Renaissance in Europe, artists painted self-portraits in an attempt to attain immortality. Rembrandt’s self-portraits spanned his entire career. The first recorded duck-face appears in his sketch from 1630 – it is now the most common pose for a selfie.

Vincent Van Gogh painted himself, sometimes with a palette in his hand or a pipe in his mouth, and even one with a bandaged ear that looks strikingly similar to the morbid funeral or distress selfies found on the Internet today.

Then cameras arrived with their shutter timers, and artist Edvard Munch (of Scream fame) took the first photographic selfie at arm’s length. He can also be credited with the first bathroom selfie.

They did it before it was cool. And the rules they lived by continue today: find the flattering angle (hint: it is never from below), let there be a good burst of light, if all else fails. And keep the duck-face close and the filters closer!

Selfie 101

Today, with a camera that fits into your palm, everyone’s just tempted to take selfies.

The process is simple: hold a phone with a camera, extend your arm to eye-level or at a 45 degree angle, and click. This works for everyone unless you want to invest in the selfie-stick that comes with a fancy remote (see Time magazine’s 25 Best Inventions of 2014), or get a phone especially made for selfies. Countless apps enhance your images and add filters.

Once you’ve perfected the art, you can dabble with different genres. First, the mirror-selfie. Stand in front of a mirror, point the camera towards it and click. Next, the post-workout selfie, taken in the gym to show off those abs. Then there is the beach brag selfie, usually taken on a lazy vacation with a beautiful view and perfectly pedicured feet somewhere in the frame.

Then there is the photo-bomb: jumping into the background of someone else’s selfie, preferably while making a funny face. Celebrity photo-bombs top our charts: Beyonce, Robert Downey Jr. and Neil Patrick Harris are almost everywhere, taking sneaky fan selfies to a whole new level.

What began as harmless self-obsession is now a global phenomenon. On the dark side, though, selfie-addiction is making its way into a list of psychological disorders. In an extreme case, a boy reportedly attempted suicide due to depression after dropping out of school to take over 200 selfies a day.

More commonly it promotes an unhealthy body image that leads to depression stemming from getting few "likes" on the social platforms. It might sound unreasonable, but the power of Facebook and Instagram should never be under-estimated.

But, on the whole, it’s a fairly safe sport.

From HT Brunch, January 25, 2015

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First Published: Jan 23, 2015 12:44 IST